Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Two musicals awaiting production
and two male singers with charm
Reviews by Rob Lester

Brainstorm Records/ Yellow Sound Label/ 35th Parallel Productions
Digital (CD format to be released in May)

Judging by the six-song sampler from the score of Madame Clicquot: A Revolutionary Musical, the musical aiming for a fully staged production, champions conviction and perseverance. The real-life title character, sung with commitment and strength by Victoria Frings, faces and survives the French Revolution, the shock of husband François dying, and the challenges of running a business that eventually becomes the hugely successful Champagne house, Veuve Clicquot. The group number that starts the blaze of the burning desire to be "Revolutionary" and make something of one's life is in the musical theatre tradition of such determined proclamations as Pippin professing that he's "Extraordinary," Jo in Little Women wishing to be "Astonishing," and the confidence presented in Hamilton's "My Shot." In a highlight of this studio cast recording, Kevin Massey as François Clicquot further invigorates things in a convincing confidence builder about living "Life on the Edge" ("It's scary, I know/ To learn to let go... If we wait for the sun we'll never dance in the moonlight").

The more intense moments of this work created by Lisette Glodowski and Richard C. Walter feature their earnest lyrics and interspersed lines of dialogue accompanied by their swirling, sweeping melodies played by a 13-member orchestra. The pace and pulse quicken and quake emphatically, sometimes topping off the passion with the addition of ensemble voices. This company won't let you down if you're up for uplifting themes and sturdy sturm und drang gutsiness.

In a respite from the heavy-handed stoic heroics, Paolo Montalban entertainingly sashays through a sassy sales pitch, gleefully insisting that people want to quench their thirst for both fine wine and "Luxury." There's also real luxury in these "preview" excerpts of the full score of Madame Clicquot (which has had some readings and concert presentations so far), as it's sumptuous rather than sketchy. The work of the singer-actors and musicians feels anything but tentative, the elaborate orchestrations by Frank Galgano (co-producer with Mike Croiter) and Matt Castle are detailed and dramatic, continuing their support and drive in interwoven dialog, under the assured hand of conductor Kenneth Gartman. Perhaps this menu of rich musical appetizers will do the trick of enticing interest in being served the full banquet.

No Hope Productions

If you subscribe to the theory that misery loves company, come commiserate with characters who are moping and mopping up tears throughout the song cycle titled The Year After. I'm often more than happy to sink into sad songs and can find satisfying catharsis in musical tales of woe or anger, and my RSVP to a pity party invitation is not to always tender my regrets. But I regret to report that not much of this material written by Tim Aumiller and Scott Schneider (he's also the pianist) finds me very enthusiastic or engaged. Along the way, angst gets both plaintive and powerhouse singing that feels authentic and may engender degrees of sympathy, but too often the venting and lamenting become repetitive rants or dirges.

Characters often sound beaten down by life and relationships gone sour. Max Crumm is effective in "What We Came With," which is reprised, a rumination about dissatisfaction and "treading water" in life. He sounds overwhelmed and under his own microscope, wondering, "Could it be that we don't really grow up?/ Could it be nothing really changes?" Subway travelers who've endured the frustrations of long waits on hot platforms, inaudible announcements, delays, and panhandlers will relate to the travails of travels on the "A Train to Brooklyn" led by Shanna Sharp and her deft handling of fast-flying lyrics set to ragged rhythms that suggest the lurching ride and uneven speed. Impressively serious in mixing a hard look at disturbing elements in modern times with a ray of hope, Dayna Dantzler and Nathan Lee Graham get things past myopic navel-gazing and "poor me!" mode with "Whispers of War."

The band, when playing gets dense or intense, can make distinguishing lyrics difficult with diction that is not crisp. The presence of cello and violin bring dignity and elegance to an endeavor that lacks those qualities in numerous selections with an excess of expletives, and there are crass references to sex. In all, there is over an hour's worth of playing time with solos and group numbers. Other singers include Brittneyann Accetta, Krystina Alabado, Michael Lee Brown, Deon'te Goodman, Jason Moody, Elisabeth Halliday-Quan, and Robert Maril.

The Year After is a mixed bag that will likely find a mix of responses. Styles of music and moods vary–and your mileage may, too.

MB Records
CD, Digital

Songs vintage and new benefit from the clear voice and unforced, unpretentious "old soul" sensibilities of crooner Matt Barber. Come for the comfort zone of standards like Brigadoon's "Almost Like Being in Love" and stay for a couple of new surprises with his newest release, The Song Is You. Nestled in easygoing but non-clone, well-played jazzy arrangements, the musical weather report is warm and/or breezy. There's nary a cloud to disturb the atmosphere of contentment and hope prevalent on this 12-track set.

"East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" gets a felicitous ballad treatment that brings out its idyllic romantic heart ("We'll build a dreamhouse of love, dear") with a string arrangement and flugelhorn. Elsewhere, the agenda to glide through melodies or amiably and ably swing doesn't always allow the vocalist to get deep into lyrics with nuance. But there's evident joy in the more casual "For Once in My Life" and "Just the Way You Are" (the latter with an echo of the sound of the hit record version by its author, Billy Joel). The repertoire includes two classics with Johnny Mercer lyrics given their due (the wistful "Moon River" with Henry Mancini's melody and "I Remember You," with Victor Scherzinger's) and two Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein collaborations: "All the Things You Are" and The Song Is You's title number.

A nice surprise, well handled, is the inclusion of the disarming "Love Like You" from Cartoon Network's animated series "Steven Universe" ("If I could begin to be/Half of what you think of me/ I could do about anything./ I could even learn how to love"). "Brother" Day Kelly guests on sax and piano for the reflective "Moments in Time," written and arranged by him and singer Barber. Various musicians and arrangers make strong contributions. Several tracks feature the piano work and arrangements of the late Bradley Young, to whose memory the album is dedicated.

Even when things seem a bit offhand, there's a fondness in the embrace of the material and a sense of wanting the lyrics to sound believable; to quote Hammerstein's line in "The Song Is You," it's that "the music is sweet, the words are true."

Audiophile Records
CD, Digital

In his second release, What a Way to Go!, the way to go favored by singer Ben Cassara is via the path where sensitivity and swing converge. There's modesty in the methodology so that lyrics are approached in a tender and genial way as they flatter the development of the melodic lines. Histrionics are anathema and while his timbre is soothing, it's a chill pill instead of a sleeping pill. He always sounds involved and intentional.

The baked-in reserve and pensiveness allow "I Just Found Out About Love" to project a kind of mature delight that seems appropriate, rather than unadulterated giddy ebullience. Liberties taken to relax "Secret Love" allow phrasing of the lyric to stress certain words differently and bring new shades to the romantic revelations. "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" is slowed down from its typical tempo, exposing the full potential of sorrow in the words in this classic that usually has its deliciously sinuous Duke Ellington melody in the spotlight in a bolder way. Mr. Cassara ends the despairing song with extra repeats of its phrase "I won't know sweet music" to emphasize the loss.

A few writers are notably favored in the 14-track set. There are two trips to the songbook of the king of Brazilian bossa nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim, sung gracefully in English versions (Ray Gilbert's contribution to "Fotografia" and Susannah McCorkle's treatment of "Vivo Sonhando"). The sly work of Dave Frishberg is represented by three choices, and Ronny Whyte, who produced the recording, has four pieces he co-wrote included. He is also the arranger and pianist on those, providing his customary classy touch. Everything else has John Richman as pianist/arranger, gifting the vocalist with some simpatico and stimulating settings. Saxophonist Harry Allen enriches the moods on eight cuts. The two other players on the project, bassist Boots Maleson and drummer Tim Horner, are on all numbers. Musicians get special focus in strong instrumental breaks, with usually concise turn-taking.

Although Ben Cassara's "nice guy" persona keeps him at a laid-back, benevolent energy level that does not suit the accusatory tone of Frishberg's cautionary tale about "Wheelers and Dealers," he's good casting otherwise. He's the charming romantic considering the next step with a lover, whether it's encouraging one to "Linger Awhile" (Roger Schore's sophisticated and seductive lyric cozying up to the Whyte melody) or accepting the risks with a fatalistic shrug and smile (What a Way to Go!’s witty title song by June M. Tonkin). The next smile will be yours, I bet, if you spend some time with the cool and competent Cassara.